How does the Russian use of private military and security companies affect Russian use of force and what are the implications for European and Norwegian security?

Over the past couple of decades, private military and security companies (PMSCs) have become instrumental to modern warfare. Western PMSCs have so far dominated this trend and hence, the bulk of the academic and media attention has been directed at this part of the industry. However, in recent years, PMSCs have developed in many parts of the world, including in Russia. The example set by the US in particular, and its extensive use of PMSCs in the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is likely to have been a source of inspiration for many other countries interested in expanding their war fighting repertoire and defence industries.

Russian private military and security companies (PMSCs) have recently caused headlines in international media. This is mainly because of the Russian PMSC Wagner’s participation in the war in Syria on the side of President Assad. However, the Russian PMSC industry is larger and more varied than it appears at first glance.

In this report, we start by analysing the historical Russian experience with the use of private force. The Russian Cossacks are of prime importance here. Today these groups are back on the private force market after being curbed during Soviet times. Apart from Cossack groups, also other types of private force providers thrive in Russia, including both private militias, such as Ramzan Kadyrov’s Terek, and the Russian PMSCs. It would be wrong to describe the Russian PMSC industry as large, but the few companies that do exist are very active. In addition to participating in combat in Donbas and Syria, they have also acted as military advisers to the governments of Sudan and the Central African Republic.

There is great variety among the Russian PMSCs. Some, first of all Wagner, are probably more mercenaries than PMSCs, while for example the RSB-group is relatively similar to Western PMSCs. Other companies are more akin to militias. In general, the Russian PMSCs seem more ready for direct combat, more ideologically motivated (some of them) and less inclined to providing logistics and other support services than most Western PMSCs.

Since President Putin already in 2012 spoke favourably about the development of PMSCs, it may seem surprising that they are still not legalized. There have been several attempts over the last few years to get such legislation through the Duma, but they have all failed. We argue that these failures can be ascribed to a combination of ideological resistance from parts of the military leadership as well as bureaucratic struggles between government agencies over the issue of control. Both the FSB, the GRU and the foreign ministry would probably want to have at least partial control over these actors if the PMSCs were to be legalised. However, as long as the divisions of power are still debated, the legislation is hard to pass. In addition, PMSCs may be considered more useful as long as they are not explicitly legal. This way, it is easier for Russian authorities to deny responsibility for Russian PMSC actions internationally.

 In the final part of the report, we discuss potential consequences of the development of a Russian PMSC industry for Norwegian and European security. Here, we make a distinction between bilateral and international consequences. By bilateral consequences we mean instances where Russian PMSCs act on behalf of the Russian government in political and military conflicts with specific European countries. By international consequences we mean the presence of Russian PMSCs in conflict zones outside Europe, but where one or more European countries are involved militarily.